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Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

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Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Thomas Bradshaw, 2009


When we visit playwright Thomas Bradshaw at his small Park Slope apartment, he’s dressed in a preppy ensemble, ruminating on the display of plastic dinosaurs that his neighbors have set up in the in front of the brownstone. He seems unexpectedly affable ­­— a far cry from the controversial author known for  penning brutally honest plays about family dysfunction.  

In his latest play, Dawn, a young man named Steven convinces his elderly alcoholic father, Hampton, to seek help through AA. Just as Hampton begins to become more stable, he discovers that Steven has been having sex with his fourteen-year-old niece, Crissy — Hampton’s own granddaughter. In the end, Hampton shoots Steven in the woods to prevent him from going to jail — Hampton’s final act of atonement for a lifetime of alcoholism.

Agonizing as it is, this plot is mild for Thomas — his previous plays have featured a lynching, violent rape scenes, a strangled newborn, and other such unthinkable occurrences. Much of his work deals with racial divisions in a raw, direct manner — his play, Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist, explores the politician’s long-term relationship with his black maid.

While the New Yorker credited him with “single-handedly taking on the idea of race in the theater,” Bradshaw is no one-trick pony. His multi-layered plots are exercises in realism — something he says that our society could use in hefty doses.

Once we’re up the stairs, the first thing you notice about his apartment is the bathroom — it’s one of those that’s out in the hallway. Our photographer Colin Dodgson decided to shoot him there.


Colin:  Is that smoke I smell in the bathroom?
Thomas: Yeah, my wife doesn’t allow me to smoke in the apartment, so I just sit here by the window. [We ask him to light up for a photo]. Smoking isn’t that exciting — it just kills you.

Molly: Is smoking your only vice?
Thomas: Yes, well, I also drink a lot of coffee.

Molly: You’re very clean cut in person, right down to the New Balance sneakers.
Thomas: Oh, I have five or six more pairs of them too, but they’re all rain shoes now. I never put on the suede protection , so once I wear them in the rain, they get ruined.

Molly: When did you first think you wanted to be a playwright?
Thomas: In high school, I was in an advanced theater class, but the school banned the play I wrote … they thought it was too incendiary.

Molly: What was the play about?
Thomas: It was about a teacher — he and his wife had an agreement that he could have sex with his students, as long as he didn’t have sex with their daughter. But then he broke the rule and had sex with their daughter, so his wife had this dilemma about whether she could be with him or not…

Molly: That was in South Orange, New Jersey?
Thomas: Yes, the area where I grew up is fairly diverse. I wasn't really aware of race until maybe high school when I started to notice the great economic disparity that exists in the area. For instance, Short Hills, where I went to middle school, is the most wealthy town in New Jersey, but it's fifteen minutes away from Newark, which has some of the worst poverty in our country. That kind of disparity made me interested in the societal structure of the world that I lived in. For much of the twentieth century, people were defined by race.  To some extent that is still true, but I think that, in our time, class is a much more powerful indicator.

Molly: You seem to have been dubbed a provocateur from the beginning.
Thomas: From the start, I’ve always been interested in taboo subjects, but I’ve never understood why people get so angry.  I’ve come to expect it now, but at first I was in shock — I was thinking — this is the world we live in.

Molly: Are you saying that people are more disturbed by fucked-up situations in a work of fiction than they are when these things happen in real life?
Thomas: Absolutely. I believe that reality is a societal construct. In America, people don’t want to see that terrible things go on.  They believe that these things are seriously abnormal, that they rarely, rarely happen. But something like one in four women has been sexually abused. That’s not a statistic that people want to hear. But hey, it’s fuckin’ reality!

Molly: Theater has always depicted violence and conflict. What makes people walk out of your plays?
Thomas: That’s a good question. It’s interesting though… people haven’t walked out of Dawn. I think that’s because of how the play is structured. For the first half of the story, we’re watching a fairly normal, familiar story.

Molly: It’s the story of an alcoholic whose family has pushed him into AA.
Thomas: Yes, I think people can genuinely identify with the characters until Steven molests his niece. But by then they’re already into the story. Whereas my play, Purity, started off with the material people didn’t want to deal with right from the get-go. A lot of people walked out.

Molly: I’m not familiar with the plot.
Thomas: Well, it’s about two college professors who are alcoholics and drug addicts, but joyfully so. In the first scene, they’re doing coke first thing in the morning to ease their hangovers — one’s black and one’s white. They decide to go down to Ecuador and rent a girl from her father. They go to the guy’s house while he’s out working in the field. It’s like a twenty-minute rape scene, and we did it really graphically. So that’s the first thirty minutes of the play, and that gives people the opportunity to be like, “FUCK this.”

Molly: There’s a scene in Dawn ­ in which Steven is in the laundry room masturbating with his niece’s panties pulled over his head. It’s great because it’s so disturbing, but also weirdly funny.
Thomas: My view is that, whatever the audience’s reaction, it’s valid. I think a lot of people think someone can be…

Molly: Pure good or pure evil?
Thomas: Yeah, I think that’s embedded in the American psyche somehow.

Molly: We’re raised to think that our parents and the world are perfect in every way. Then, when we get older we realize, “Woah, this is all fucked up.”
Thomas: Yes, I think it’s all about socialization. Our parents try to put that standard in place.

Molly: It sounds like your mom was atypical in that regard.
Thomas: No, my parents definitely weren’t pretending to be perfect about anything. They were divorced when I was ten, and I could see it coming for at least five years before that.  It’s hard to maintain any sort of perfect image after a divorce happens, because everything is in disarray.

Molly: For me, the most painful part of Dawn was when Hampton was still drinking. He was siphoning gin into water bottles. To do that and not realize that you have a problem is very disturbing. Yet it’s very human to rationalize it like that.
Thomas: Yeah, I think alcoholism is part of the American landscape, and I think it’s romanticized. We pretty things up. We don’t show the reality of alcoholism — pissing in your bed, vomiting, hiding liquor everywhere. So I thought, what can I do differently?

Molly: You also write very explicitly about sex.
Thomas: Yes. I gave myself a little bit of a challenge with Dawn. I usually write out the sex scenes in detail, but in this one, I wrote everything up to the sex, and after the sex.

Molly: Wait, I felt like there was sex on the stage!
Thomas: When?

Molly: Steven starts to go down on his niece, and the stage goes dark, so I suppose…
Thomas: For me, that’s really holding back! I’m like — let’s show it. Why is that distasteful? People have sex — everybody does it! Why are we so uptight about it?

Molly: Then there’s the masturbation scene, when Crissy gets off for guys on the Internet. That’s pretty explicit.
Thomas: I guess I don’t see masturbation onstage as sex onstage!

Molly: Where do you get your ideas for your pla ys?
Thomas: They just kinda come to me. With Dawn, it was the words that are spoken at the very beginning and end of the play: “Let light shine like fire, through the dawn of these dark times. Help us to achieve redemption. Teach us the eternal rituals of suffering.” — I just imagined them while I was on the train.

Molly: That has a religious tone to it.
Thomas: It does — which is not like my writing at all. My writing is usually bare and to the point, not really poetic.

Molly: I’ve read that your biggest fear is that people will be bored.
Thomas: I see five to seven plays a week — and I’m bored eighty-five percent of the time. How can we ask people to come to the theater and pay X amount of dollars just to bore them to death — or just be didactic and tell people what they already know. We know the Iraq war is bad and that Bush is an idiot. But why is that theater?

Molly: Playing the devil’s advocate, one could say the subjects you deal with are akin to the kind of stories that we see in the tabloids.
Thomas: From what I can tell, the tabloids are concerned with celebrity breakups, and not with subjects of any remote significance. The issues that I deal with in my plays are much more prevalent than most people think. Much of Dawn deals with alcoholism and its effects on the family. Who hasn't had to deal with alcoholism in some form or another, be it in a family member or friend? The involuntary prostitution of young girls, teenagers, and women is our modern form of slavery. It wouldn't be a problem if there weren't a high demand for it. Look at the show “To Catch A Predator.” It shows men trying to have sex with young girls and boys by the drove — and the people who were caught engaging in this behavior were rabbis, policeman, priests, doctors, lawyers and teachers. My plays deal forthrightly with serious issues that many people don't care to face. I categorize my plays as hyperrealism. They are like reality on crack — reality with out the boring parts. If I were going to write a play that reflected uneventful human experience, I'd show a professor sitting at his kitchen table drinking coffee and grading papers for three hours. That would be an accurate reflection of reality, but it wouldn't be very interesting.

Molly: Do you feel a calling to write about race?
Thomas: Well, I was writing plays like Dawn before I started writing these race plays, not dealing with race at all. But I realized that I could write about race in a way that other people couldn’t. Not that I’ve really gotten away with it. Plenty of people have accused me of being a racist. But if I were a white guy, I can’t even imagine… the plays wouldn’t get produced. They’d be like, “Fuck this guy.”

Molly: How do you see someone like August Wilson, who is mostly known for writing about race?
Thomas: I don't want to be pigeonholed like August Wilson. I think that in order to be a great artist, one must follow his interests. For me, that means that I'll write about race sometimes, and sometimes I won't. However, we live in a culture that's obsessed with people's personal experiences — i.e. reality television. For a minority artist, I think there's this expectation that you must write about your struggle. I'm not interested in that. That's been done before. I'm interested in dealing with subjects in ways that haven’t been presented before. Plenty of white writers write about black people, why can't I write a white family drama?

Molly: So you feel you’ve been pigeonholed anyway?
Thomas: I have this reputation for writing about race. There’s a Variety review of Dawn that basically asks, what gives me the right to write about anything else? It says that I should “stick to subjects I have experience with.” It’s pretty much implying: how can a black guy put white characters on the stage?

Molly: Well, who’s to say you haven’t dealt with addiction?
Thomas: I know, who is to say? I assure you, I’ve dealt with plenty of it.

Molly: How so?
Thomas: I don’t like going into specifics about my personal life. I’m really not writing autobiography. But I can say that I have a lot of experience with the nature of addiction through my family.

Molly: Did you think about casting Dawn with black actors?
Thomas: It could be cast any way. But I wanted it to be this way, because, honestly, in order for something to be seen as in any way universal, you have to have all white characters on stage. Once you put black characters on stage, it just becomes about “those people.” The audience doesn’t possibly think it could relate to their lives.

Molly: You’re so young to be getting the kind of acclaim you’ve received.
Thomas: I guess… I don’t know if “acclaim” is the right word!

© Colin Dodgson

© Joan Marcus
Thomas Bradshaw's 2008 play, Dawn, at the Flea Theater, NYC. Hampton (Gerry Bamman) siphons bottles of gin to hide his worsening addiction.

© Joan Marcus
Steven (Drew Hildebrand) seduces his fourteen year-old niece Crissy (Jenny Seastone Stern).

© Joan Marcus
Hampton’s teenage granddaughter Crissy (Jenny Seastone Stern) sexes it up for strange men in an online chat room.

© Colin Dodgson

© Colin Dodgson
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